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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

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Corante Blog

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Shiny, shiny tools won’t save you from trolls

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Last week, Meg Pickard, who works with community at AOL Europe, came round to have a chat. She talked about creating and managing communities. I was going to write about her comments because they were just so damn good, but like a lot of people, I’m currently digging out from a blizzard of holiday cheer and Christmas parties so am catching up with blogging.

There were so many gems in what she had to say, and I’ll highlight just a few:

  • “Is this a community or just people who have something in common?” she said. Brilliant, I say. Your readers/viewers aren’t a community. Don’t throw blogs and social networking tools on your site and expect a ‘community’ to form. Your audience represents a lot of different communities - geographical, interest-based, activity-based, etc. But, just because they have your channel, newspaper, website in common, doesn’t make them a community.
  • “Community is off-line as well as online,” she added. Websites who don’t use off-line events to bolster their online communities are missing a trick.
  • “Good communities need participation by users and by YOU,” Meg said. Too many news sites are looking to community as a silver-bullet technical solution. They seem to think they just need to add some blogs and bingo the next BoingBoing or add some social networking tools and they are on their way to becoming the next MySpace. No, the biggest change is getting out there on your own websites and mixing it up a bit.
  • Moderation is a big issue. “But who is moderating it? Do you let your users moderate each other?” she said. Do you give them voting tools like Digg? Do you let them hide things they don’t want to see? She said that moderation rules should focus on making the sure the comments, photos and video are ’safe and appropriate and not whether they are ‘good’ and on topic’.

It was a great presentation from a digital native who not only looks at these spaces with the eye of a trained anthropologist but also from someone who lives in these online communities with her Flickr groups, Last.Fm stream and her own online projects.

But let me just touch on that last point: Moderation. It’s often one of the overlooked issues with community. My second online news job, 10 years ago, was with Newhouse Newspapers’ Michigan Live, and part of my job, as with all of the online journalists on staff, was policing our forums when our ‘fuck filters’ failed. Community was never a build it and they will come proposition. I have had to build up a few online communities, and it takes work. And once they have a critical mass, they can still be overwhelmed by trolls.

When I first joined the Guardian, someone on Comment is Free said that by trolls I only meant someone who I didn’t agree with. No, that’s not a troll. Trolls are folks who delight in breaking things. The BBC calls them WUM - wind-up merchants. But they can wreak havoc in online spaces, and the answers aren’t simple and they aren’t wholly technical. Looking through my RSS feeds, I noticed the most recent example of an news site that has succumb to trolling: The Arizona Daily Star, with an explanation from Executive Editor Bobbie Jo Buel on why the site had to delete comments. Ryan Sholin has a great write-up, and I’ll quote liberally from his second of three points:

…that is a damn fine commenting system they’re running over there: It’s got the Digg-ish thumbs up/thumbs down function I’ve been wanting to see. It’s got the Slashdot-esque threshold I agitated for a long time ago. The paper has a clean, well-designed registration page, and users must be registered to post or rate comments. I want this commenting system. Seriously. What sort of CMS are you guys running and is the commenting system built into it, or is it an add on?

I agree. The Daily Star has gone further than most newspapers in building a commenting system with a lot more intelligence than standard forums or blog software. (And like Ryan, I’m curious as to what software you’re using, feel free to e-mail me as well.) UPDATE: I just found out that the software is Bakomatic from Participata.

And as for the staff and managers at the Daily Star, don’t worry. You’re not alone in having an outbreak of trolls. It happens to everyone. I hope you don’t pull down your comment feature. You’ve put a lot of work and thought into it. Good luck, and a little unsolicited advice:

  • Get some community managers in there.
  • Don’t run one-half of a Skinner box. Don’t just poke the commenters with cattle prods when they misbehave, also give them some cheese when they are good neighbours in your community.
  • See Meg’s comment above. The community needs participation from users and from you and your staff. Join with your users in making it your (you and your commenters’) community.

When people ask me how blogs are different from forums, I say, “The blogger sets the tone”. I sort of joke when doing blog training for journalists that if you write a post like a pompous ass, people will respond accordingly. I’m only half joking. Yes, the technology will help you manage the comments and help foster the community, but unless you look at your content as well, you’re going to be fighting a losing battle against the trolls.

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4 Responses to “Shiny, shiny tools won’t save you from trolls”

  1. Phil Says:

    Moderation. It’s often one of the overlooked issues with community.

    As I write, five of your last six comments are pr0n trackbacks. I’m not saying that undermines your argument, because it doesn’t, but it is a bit unfortunate.

  2. Suw Says:

    Phil, we’re aware of the porn comments. Unfortunately, Corante’s installation of MT has been really rather flakey recently and it has been very hard to get into it and do any work at all to clean up the crap left by the spammers. As soon as the admin pages are accessible again, those damn comments will be gone!

  3. Kevin Anderson Says:

    Phil, to echo what Suw said, we’ve had really consistent problems with Movable Type. Both Suw and I tried all day yesterday to get into the MT backend with variable luck. Personally and professionaly, I’m pretty tired with fighting with Movable Type. I hope Six Apart is listening. Anyone from SixApart want to contact me for a chat? You know where to find me.

  4. nick s Says:

    I think it’s time for the term ‘trolling’ to cross back over to ‘traditional’ media. That is, trolling for responses, aka ‘Classic Trolling’. John Dvorak has admitted he does it, and it’s a classic tactic by the lazy journo: write a piece that’s guaranteed to provoke a kneejerk response, then use those responses to write the next week’s piece. Easy money.

    But when pieces from print media appear online, and have an online readership that may surpass that in print, it’s only fair that certain conventions of online conversation should apply.

    If a columnist is trolling, it should be appropriate to call it out. But what if a comments section bans trolls? And what if an editor isn’t averse to trolling columnists? After all, it’s a good way to keep people reading.

    [This leaves certain bits of print media in an awkward position. Take the letters page: it has space limitations, is often edited for publication, and any letters editor will admit that plenty of silly trolling pieces will make the cut, just to keep Mrs Trellis of North Wales from writing in for a month or so. Having comments facilities for letters seems inappropriate, not least because of the imbalance between content written to fit two different policies, where the original pieces may have been edited without the author's oversight.]